Knowledge without Character

Taking a more inclusive view of the biblically-based Seven Deadly Sins, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (i.e. Mahatma Gandhi) wrote his version: the Seven Deadly Social Sins.  One of the sins he warns of is “Knowledge without Character,” and to understand why he presents this combination as a potential sin, one must look at what Gandhi thought of education (Hansen).

Of education, Gandhi said, The ancient aphorism “Education is that which liberates,” is as true as it was before.  [. . . .]  Knowledge includes all training that is useful for the service of mankind and liberation means freedom of all manner of servitude [. . . – . . .] slavery [and] domination from outside and to one’s own artificial needs.  The knowledge acquired in the pursuit of this ideal alone contributes [to] true study.  (“Gandhi & Education”)

A simple interpretation of this statement requires that those who are currently pursuing a higher education in a collegiate setting need to analyze their reasons for doing so, and if they find that the potential to earn a greater income is the primary drive, they are headed down a path of social sin.  Students need to consider the bigger picture: what can their particular academic interests do to make the world a better place?  Can the lessons learned in an economics class be applied to that student’s participation in local government; to a solution to nation-wide obliteration of homelessness; to increasing the wealth of the entire world so that no human being is faced with dying of hunger; or is that lesson merely a small step towards making more money for a private enterprise?

A grander interpretation of these words could be applied to the current desire to end terrorism.  Looking back to WWII, the scientific knowledge needed to create the atomic bomb was used without character.  Without taking sides or creating a political debate, the fact is that the United States of America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and no other country before or since has dropped an atomic bomb in an act of war (Burr).

Moving back to today, it is the United States that is leading the fight against terrorism, and that fight began as an eradication of world-wide weapons of mass destruction—weapons that were made possible and whose force was proven by the same nation that is currently acting as the world’s watchdog.  Fortunately, the United States is getting a second chance: if we are able to combat terrorism and eliminate the threat of atomic weapons and their kin, it may be that the knowledge gained so long ago regarding the devastation of the atom bomb will be applied today with the necessary character by assuring all of humanity that such force will never again be unleashed.

The reason that the Social Sin of “Knowledge without Character” is such a great threat to humanity is directly related to the degree of power that is inherent to the possession of knowledge.  Looking back at the plight of Frederick Douglass, a man born into slavery who taught himself to read and write so that he might better understand his captors and eventually escape his enslavement, it is clear that absent the knowledge of reading and writing, he never would have had the power to forge his papers and flee to the South (Douglass passim).

Today, politicians, attorneys, the media, and others like them who generate the information used by society to stay informed must comprehend the responsibility of what they do.  The power they possess to control the knowledge that is dispersed into society demands that they have the character to present all sides of an issue and report only factual details—of course, as Gandhi predicted, the character flaws inherent in the average human being often precludes the knowledge being disseminated in a manner that is completely accurate and/or honorable.

Consumers of this information must take it upon themselves to assess what they read and hear and are told with a critical eye, and when discrepancies are found, each observer must demand correction.  The knowledge needed to assess information critically is often honed in the arena of higher education, so individuals involved in academia have an opportunity to gain knowledge and apply that knowledge with strength of character.

Patrick Bassett expresses the relationship between educators and Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins in this way, we must continually seek to discover opportunities to challenge our students and to have them challenge us on values issues.  We must continually seek to carve out time to address issues of the community.  We must continually keep the moral agenda before us. When our first and second curricula merge, we teach youngsters to avoid all of Gandhi’s sins and perhaps a few of their own design.  (Bassett)

As responsible individuals in a world that is partially in our hands, we must each consider the words of Gandhi and our connection to them.  It may be the role of the educator to plan actions, but it is the role of the student to take them.  If this were not the case, the words spoken by Gandhi would have fallen uselessly to the ground, never having been truly heard and incorporated into the lives of those who have both the necessary knowledge and character.

Works Cited

  1. Bassett, Patrick F.  “‘Do the Right Thing’: The Case for Moral Education.”  NAIS Academic Forum.  Dec. 1995.  Independent Schools Association of the Central States.
  2. Burr, William.  Ed.  “The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II: A Collection of Primary Sources: National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 162.”  The National Security Archive.  5 Aug.  2005.  27 Sept. 2006.  < NSAEBB/NSAEBB162/index.htm>.
  3. Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.  New York: Dodo, 2005.
  4. “Gandhi & Education: Basic Education (Buniyadi Shiksha).”  MKGandi.Org: The Complete Site on Mahatma Gandhi.  25 Sept. 2006. < index.htm>.
  5. Hansen, Paul.  “Biblical Justice Consultancy: Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Social Sins – A Reflection.”  Redemptorists of the Edmonton-Toronto Province.  2005.  27 Sept. 2006.  <>.

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